Fuel cell technology boosts drone flight


A UK-based energy tech company is demonstrating how hydrogen fuel cells can be used to significantly extend the range of commercial drones.
Intelligent Energy says its technology can extend flight times from 15 minutes to up to two hours, benefiting a range of industries from inspection to search and rescue.

Lift-off for this four-rotored quadcopter, but this is a drone with a difference.
In this muddy Loughborough farmer’s field, around 170 kilometres north of London, experts from UK-based energy group Intelligent Energy are testing what they claim to be a game-changer for drone tech.
While it may not appear different from current commercially-available UAVs, this drone is powered using two hydrogen fuel cells. The only waste product is warm air and water.
This, Intelligent Energy claims, solves two of the biggest problems associated with current battery-powered drones: flight time and re-fuelling.
“So, I’m holding a drone with a fuel cell technology on board instead of a battery,” explains Julian Hughes, acting managing director of Intelligent Energy’s Consumer Electronics Division.
“So, we’ve integrated the fuel cells to give an extended flight time over and above traditional batteries.”
Having announced last December they’d developed a prototype range-extender for drones, Intelligent Energy now feels confident enough to demonstrate its technology.
On top of the drone are two hydrogen fuel cell stacks fitted with fans to usher in oxygen, therefore prompting the chemical reaction.
Underneath is a 350 millilitres hydrogen tank which, Intelligent Energy say, can be changed in around a minute once depleted.
Hughes says the water by-product produced by the reaction is so minimal it disappears as vapour, similar to what humans breathe out.
They claim any added weight is negated by the extended flight time.
“So, on the top are the two fuel cell stacks, they need oxygen which is from the air, which is what the fans help and underneath is the hydrogen,” he explains.
“So, the hydrogen and the oxygen run across the fuel cell plates and produce electricity.”
Intelligent Energy believes this application of hydrogen fuel cell technology will be a game-changer for the rapidly-growing commercial and enterprise drone market.
Independent research firm, MarketsandMarkets, expects the global commercial drone market to sky-rocket in the coming years, reaching .59 billion USD by 2020.
But, Hughes says it’s currently held back by the short range and long re-charging times associated with conventional batteries.
“So, the main problem with current battery technology on drones is flight time – you get around 15 minutes and then you have to re-charge the battery for a number of hours,” he says.
“And with fuel cell technology that we now have put on board, the flight times are significantly increased, up to between an hour and two hours.
“And no need to recharge the battery, all you need to do is change the fuel source and that takes around a minute.”
It’s thought longer flight times and quicker refueling will open a wide range of possibilities for high-flying drone tech.
Inspection, search and rescue, aerial photography, precision agriculture and parcel delivery could all benefit.
Having completed an engineering PhD at Cambridge University, Dr. Ben Todd founded London-based Arcola Energy, an engineering services company which specialises in fuel cells and hydrogen.
Dr. Todd says drones are potentially a good use for hydrogen fuel cell tech, but only when its application outweighs the added cost and complexity.
Dr. Todd says people shouldn’t be worried about any safety implications.

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